Letter to the Editor: Horse Racing Needs a Commissioner's Office

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Medina Spirit | Horsephotos

by Armen Antonian Ph.D

As the 2021 Breeders' Cup approaches, there is much for horse racing to celebrate. New procedures put in place at racetracks to prevent horses with pre-existing conditions from racing have reduced fatalities. And the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) will be implemented next year to standardize medication of horses.

But from California to Kentucky to New York, horse racing is still under a magnifying glass. In the absence of national leadership, individual racetracks struggle to manage ongoing issues and each, on their own, is responsible for promoting a positive image for racing with the general public.

Thoroughbred racing needs a commissioner's office to help address emerging problems and enhance racing's image. Other sports have such an entity. Horse racing needs one, too. Why add another layer of authority? The existing, truncated structure of individual track management of pressing racing issues is insufficient because problems/solutions go well beyond the framework of a single track. What would such an office be involved in?

Take the controversy about the recent Kentucky Derby. The Derby is so important to racing nationwide (revenue, breeding, fan interest, etc.) that any major decision involving the Derby would have a commissioner's office oversight looking out for the general interest of the sport. A commissioner's office would have addressed the slight medication positive of Medina Spirit (Protonico), the Derby winner, while, at the same time, standing by the race result. Whether the win later technically holds is a legal matter. Churchill's response had no such subtlety as it called into question both the authenticity of Medina Spirit's performance and his fitness to run in the Derby.

Trainer Bob Baffert was abruptly suspended from Churchill for two years. What ensued was a (predictable) outpouring of accusations from all directions about the horse, the trainer, and, yes, the sport of horse racing. The sport of racing was not enhanced by Churchill's response. Some in the general public have been led to think that a smidgen of a legal medication can make a horse win the industry's signature race, the Derby. It is very hard to win the Derby!  Ask any trainer, jockey, or owner.

Medina Spirit's trainer, Baffert, has been the face of racing. A commissioner's office would have stepped in to add balance to any official pronouncement about the trainer. A two-year ban appears excessive both to the average racing fan and the public at large. The positive reception of both Baffert and Medina Spirit this month at Santa Anita indicate the feelings of the average race fan. Of course, penalties would have been proposed based on a commissioner's office interaction with Churchill for the positive test result (pending investigation) but not without a nuanced view of the circumstances. The last thing horse racing needs is doubt about the sincerity of its response to one of its most noted figures. The public understands the need to give an ointment to a horse for a skin rash (the plausible reason for the drug overage pending the test result). The public would even approve of such a medication for Medina Spirit.

Contrast Churchill's one-sided response to Medina Spirit's positive test to the balanced approach of the Breeders' Cup board of directors. The Breeders' Cup board acknowledged Baffert's predicament (“totality of the circumstances”) and are requiring his horses to undergo additional testing and scrutiny before racing in this year's Breeders' Cup. The board acted in the broad, constructive manner of a quasi-commissioner's office.

There are a host of other issues that demand industry-wide attention. A commissioner's office would already be addressing the purposeful doping of horses with illegal drugs charged by the FBI against trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro (Navarro has pleaded guilty). An industry-wide investigation (apart from that of the FBI) would be underway, coordinated by a committee that would reach out to all racetracks to verify how widespread such doping might be. The horses who may yet be subject to such treatment deserve a rapid response. The racing and general public need to know. Instead, discussion of illegal drug use on horses just festers in chatter among race fans and then filters out into the general public fueling the dark notion that the entirety of horse racing is a dishonest enterprise.

The most visible of racing issues today is the riding crop. To the public at large, the riding crop appears to be a negative, archaic feature of racing. A commissioner's office would help to create a nationwide riding crop standard, after consulting with the jockeys' representatives themselves, and then educate the racing and the general public as to its proper and expected use. The public will understand–if the reasons the crop is needed are explained. But instead, having different crop rules in different states, and no crop at all in New Jersey is incongruous and again feeds into suspicious views about horse racing.

And finally back to the Derby. I was at the 2019 Derby and what struck me about the disqualification of Maximum Security (New Year's Day) was that three local stewards alone were making the decision for the industry's biggest race. No input from a central office like other sports existed. Let us have a seven-person stewards' team for the Derby, with a member from a commissioner's office and with a handicapper/fan on it as well. Horse racing: its people, its fans, and its horses deserve the consideration of a national racing office like any other major sport. From whip rules to public relations and more, today's issues require immediate action that go well beyond the capacity of individual tracks. A first “tip” for a press release from the new office: I know of a horse that originally cost $1,000 that won the Kentucky Derby. Now that is a story to run with!

Armen Antonian of Pasadena, California holds a Ph.D in political economy and political philosophy.

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